A Maryland Senate committee signed off on legislation aimed at repealing the state’s controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights late Friday after several days of contentious arguments over how to craft a disciplinary process for police officers to replace the law.
But the endorsement came only after heavy rewriting of the bill during hours of sometimes-heated discussion. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jill Carter, derided amendments adopted by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee as “absolutely appalling.”
Carter’s proposal would have abolished police trial boards — panels of fellow officers that decide whether a cop committed wrongdoing — and placed authority to resolve complaints almost entirely in the hands of police chiefs and sheriffs.
The bill as amended by the Judicial Proceedings Committee would retain trial boards, but they would be three-person panels composed of two civilians and one fellow officer.
By comparison, the main police reform bill in the House of Delegates, being pushed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, also would retain police trial boards but add civilian members. Her proposal would require that two out of three trial board members be civilians.
Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, enacted in 1974, lays out extensive job protections and due process requirements for officers facing allegations of misconduct. Maryland was the first state to enact such a law, but at least 20 other states have since followed suit.
Critics have long claimed that various provisions of the law shield bad cops from discipline. For instance, it requires internal affairs investigators to wait at least five days to question officers accused of wrongdoing. Police unions argue that the provisions guarantee fair treatment and protect rank-and-file officers from the whims of tyrannical chiefs or sheriffs.
Previous proposals to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights have withered in the General Assembly amid stiff opposition from law enforcement leaders and the Fraternal Order of Police. Momentum has grown substantially this year, with top Democrats in both chambers expressing support for repealing the law.
But there appear to be deep rifts over what police disciplinary process should replace the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, as the intense debate over Carter’s proposal illustrated. Simply repealing the law would largely leave setting disciplinary rules up to individual agencies and police collective bargaining agreements.
Carter’s initial proposal was backed by a coalition of advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Maryland. Besides abolishing trial boards, it would have would have allowed chiefs to skip an internal investigation and mete out discipline if an officer was convicted in criminal court or agreed to probation.
Instead, the Judicial Proceedings Committee adopted several changes proposed by Sen. Michael A. Jackson, a Democratic former sheriff of Prince George’s County who once led the Fraternal Order of Police there. Among the changes: A separate internal affairs investigation would still be required for some misdemeanors committed off-duty.
Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said the altered bill “completely guts the concept of repeal.” She called the final product “a smidgen of an improvement” over the existing Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights but “is no longer my bill.”
“I’ll vote yes because it’s a slight improvement,” said Carter, “but it’s not repeal.”
“Just never forget the fact that we’re making progress here,” said Chairman William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, after voting to advance the bill. “When we get to the floor, we’ll have something we can defend and make sure it gets into law.”